There's been some buzz about NYTimes Editor Bill Keller's recent column, in which -- in true curmudgeon fashion -- he posits that Twitter and such are a problem because they are killing deep conversation:
As a kind of masochistic experiment, the other day I tweeted "#TwitterMakesYouStupid. Discuss." It produced a few flashes of wit ("Give a little credit to our public schools!"); a couple of earnestly obvious points ("Depends who you follow"); some understandable speculation that my account had been hacked by a troll; a message from my wife ("I don't know if Twitter makes you stupid, but it's making you late for dinner. Come home!"); and an awful lot of nyah-nyah-nyah ("Um, wrong." "Nuh-uh!!"). Almost everyone who had anything profound to say in response to my little provocation chose to say it outside Twitter. In an actual discussion, the marshaling of information is cumulative, complication is acknowledged, sometimes persuasion occurs. In a Twitter discussion, opinions and our tolerance for others' opinions are stunted. Whether or not Twitter makes you stupid, it certainly makes some smart people sound stupid.
He then compares this to claims heard in yesteryear about how calculators meant people weren't good at doing math in their head any more, and how future generations with their brains and retinal displays jacked directly into the network would make people bad at remembering stuff. We've heard such claims before, but I think it misses the point. Yes, it's important for people to be able to understand the basic building blocks of things like mathematics, but is it really such a horrible thing if you can free up that part of your brain and let it work on other tasks?
As for the claims about the lack of deep conversations on Twitter, I think that's unnecessarily compartmentalizing communication. Twitter isn't designed for deep conversations, so asking it to do deep conversations and mocking it for not doing so seems sort of silly, doesn't it? And, yet, I know first hand that short bursts of conversations on Twitter have resulted in much deeper conversations outside of Twitter for me, as well as all sorts of connections to people and conversations I never would have had otherwise. That those didn't all happen directly on Twitter seems entirely besides the point. In many cases they happened because of Twitter, and that seems a lot more interesting and powerful than worrying about how some people sound "stupid" on Twitter. Some people sound stupid off Twitter too. Perhaps the problem isn't Twitter.
While I've still been linking to NY Times articles for Techdirt posts, if there are decent stories on the same subject elsewhere, I've been starting to use those other sources instead. That's because I know we're getting closer and closer to 2011 -- when the NY Times has promised to lock up its content behind a paywall. The company still keeps pretending that it can have the best of both worlds, and is apparently insisting that the paywall won't remove it from the wider conversation because it will allow a "first click free" sort of program, whereby you'll be able to read an article once if you click through from another site, before being asked to pay. While that might make the NY Times comfortable, it doesn't make me comfortable at all. If there are no other options, I may still link to NY Times content, but I'm certainly going to be a lot more cautious linking to it. Why would I even risk pissing off my readers by a lockout when I can point them to another site that actually wants that traffic?
I've noticed that whenever we mention Twitter on this site, we inevitably get some snarky comment from someone about how useless Twitter is. It often seems to come from someone with a "been there/done that" attitude, but it really comes off quite like the folks who used to mock mobile phones as being useless, email as being useless, the web as being useless and blogs as being useless. The fact is many, many, many people find all those things quite valuable, and these days you don't hear so many complaints about phones, email and the web being useless (you still sometimes hear people talking about blogs being useless). One of the most common put downs of Twitter is that "I don't care about someone eating a tuna sandwich for lunch." And, indeed, most people don't. But if all you follow are people whose tuna sandwich lunches you don't care about, you're not using the tool correctly.
I vowed I would never become a Twit. Now I have Tweeted nearly 10,000 Tweets. I said Twitter represented the end of civilization. It now represents a part of the civilization I live in. I said it was impossible to think of great writing in terms of 140 characters. I have been humbled by a mother of three in New Delhi. I said I feared I would become addicted. I was correct.
Now, part of that is the fact that he has lost his voice, which has made it difficult for him to have good face-to-face conversations, something that he can do on Twitter. And it's that aspect of it that made him realize what a useful service it is:
I am in conversation. When you think about it, Twitter is something like a casual conversation among friends over dinner: Jokes, gossip, idle chatter, despair, philosophy, snark, outrage, news bulletins, mourning the dead, passing the time, remembering favorite lines, revealing yourself.
A bunch of people sent this story over, and initially I wasn't sure if there was anything to say about it. But those few lines above so accurately describe the value of Twitter that it seemed worthwhile to post. I know it won't convince those who still see no need for the service, or those who feel the need to immediately put it down without additional thought, but for those who have found the service to be useful, the point Ebert makes above is what makes it so valuable. For me, personally, I've found that those sorts of "conversations" have allowed me to stay much more in touch with friends and family around the world, while also making new friends and acquaintances along the way. It really is just an ongoing conversation, and in a world where conversation matters (as I believe it does now, more than ever), the tools that make conversation easier are too important to simply brush aside as useless.
At this point, we've probably discussed the newly planned NY Times paywall enough, but a blog post by Reuters' Felix Salmon made such a good point that it's worth highlighting. In talking about the paywall, he notes, as I did originally, that people have a lot less incentive to link to the NY Times as they know it will be harder for others to make use of that link. That I understood, but Salmon made a key point that I hadn't really thought about:
I suspect that what's going to happen now is that as the moment of truth approaches, bloggers will increasingly search around for the NYT's replacement as online paper of record: the way that blogs work is that they're backed up by links to reliable sources, and a link is worthless if the person clicking on it risks running straight into a paywall, unable to read the information in question. The NYT's journalism might well continue to be reliable, but its website won't be, any more.
That point highlights the difference between valuing the content vs. valuing the conversation (or even valuing enabling the conversation). The top folks at the NY Times (and many other publications) seem to over-value the content and undervalue the conversation. Thus, they think that the content needs to be paid for, but don't realize that they devalue their role in the conversation.
If you want to make the bet that the internet is more about content delivery than conversation and communication, then perhaps this makes sense. But, almost all signs point to the fact that it's the conversation that's the really important thing online, and devaluing that is almost certainly a mistake.
This happens all too frequently. I recently wrote a short post about something that was apparently happening with YouTube and soon after received an angry email from a PR person at the company first scolding me for not contacting Google PR first and then demanding that I insert some PR babble paragraph that said nothing that addressed the key questions raised in the post in "response." This made no sense to me. If I got something factually wrong, I have no problem having someone point out what was in error, but demanding that I first contact them and then include a meaningless statement is ridiculous. If the PR folks have something to say, they're free to take it up in our comments.
It seems that Michael Arrington, over at TechCrunch, has run into something similar (and I'm sure it happens to him all the time as well). After briefly (really, in passing) mentioning the infamous Video Professor in his post on marketing scams, the company first tried to get him to post their response, and when he told them no (in less friendly words), the company instead complained to the Washington Post, who syndicated the same TechCrunch post (as it has done for a while with TechCrunch posts). The real issue, of course, is that The Video Professor didn't like getting called out on its marketing practices. The company is notoriously sensitive over its reputation and has gone legal on people multiple times in the past. At issue is the fact that people are told they're getting a "free" product, but don't realize they're really signing up to pay a lot of money if they don't follow the fine print carefully. Arrington called this a "scam" and plenty of folks agree. The Video Professor did not agree, but if that's the case, it has every right to clarify its own marketing material, rather than going after those who call them out on their less-than-clear practices.
But the bigger issue with these types of situations is that companies need to realize that just because someone doesn't like the way you're acting and states an opinion, on that subject, it doesn't mean that they first need to contact you or get a meaningless PR quote from you. You have a right to respond, but on your own website -- or within open comments if they're available (as they are on this site). For too long, companies have hid behind bland PR statements and the willingness of the press to "balance" stories with an accusation and a denial, but no real effort to get to the bottom of things. That's changing, and it's time that companies and their PR reps caught up to what's happening.
One of the points we've tried to make around here regularly is that this blog is not a traditional journalism effort. I am not a "reporter." I do not go out seeking stories to report on. I write about what I find interesting and I give my opinion on it -- and I do so in a way where I expect a discussion to happen in our comments from which we can all learn. I find that to be a lot better of an experience for everyone involved than to go out talking to a bunch of people behind closed doors and then writing up a "one true report" on the matter that probably leaves out half of the interesting stuff. Instead, I post what seems interesting and the comments are then very much a part of the story.
I've written many times before that we get more than enough stories sent to us by readers -- and I find plenty of interesting stories myself. I can't think of a single case where a PR person has turned me onto a PR story that I've cared about and hadn't already seen elsewhere. But PR people still fill my inbox daily with stories about all sorts of stuff we'd never write about, because they clearly don't read the site. They assume that any tech story is automatically relevant, so they spam me and probably 100 other sites. Perhaps some of them care and find the emails useful, though I doubt it.
In the last year or two, there's been a growing number of PR people who have moved on to a new tactic. Since actually getting press to cover the company you're representing is difficult, they now send around emails to writers about certain news stories, saying that so-and-so exec at such-and-such company, which has absolutely nothing to do with the story at hand, is "available for comment" on this story. So, for example, if two big companies announce a partnership, a PR person will send an email saying that some startup CEO in a market impacted by that partnership (barely), is "available for comment" about that partnership. It's basically a desperate PR person's attempt to get some press for a client where none is warranted.
Except, of course, we never quote people for posts here. We're not reporters. We're not looking for sources. We write about our opinions on stories and that's it. We'll quote another article, in order to comment on it, but we're not looking for sources at all. If you read Techdirt, you'd know that.
I recently put a message on Twitter about this, saying that, for all the PR people who had someone "available for comment" on stories, the comments on Techdirt are enabled and open for them to comment on any story they feel is relevant. It got a really good response on Twitter, so I figured I'd expand on it into a post. If you are a PR person, and you represent someone who has "a comment" on a particular story, please point them to the site where they are free to comment away, along with everyone else, as a part of a conversation, not some PR effort. And, please don't be offended if I just emailed you a link to this post in response to your offer to have some random exec "comment" on some unrelated story.
All weekend, I've been inundated via email, Twitter, the submission page and more, from people all pointing me to musician Dan Bull's brilliant musical "open letter" to Lily Allen in response to the whole kerfuffle last week concerning Lily Allen's decision to speak out against musicians who said they disagreed with plans to kick file sharers off the internet. I wasn't sure if it was worth posting, because I began to feel like some might view it as piling on -- and the purpose here was never to drag anyone down or abuse anyone. I thought I had been clear about that in each and every one of my posts -- and, for the most part, all of the conversations and discussions I'd seen on the topic were quite reasonable and fair. My posts never attacked Ms. Allen, but tried to raise the level of discourse, asking her to respond to certain questions -- and at the same time highlight how her position was, in fact, a bit hypocritical, seeing as she had been doing many of the same things that she said were destroying the industry.
And yet, with Ms. Allen shutting down the blog, and claiming it was because of "abuse," some people have started accusing me of "bullying" Ms. Allen. An IP lawyer in our comments insists that I am somehow bullying her in simply asking questions. One recording industry lawyer accused me of "leading" my "internet army" of "hackers" to "attack" any artist who agreed with Allen (what?!?). Then there was the major publication that claimed that Techdirt was upset about Allen copying our blog post and that we had "suddenly discovered the power of copyright." Apparently reading comprehension isn't a strong point there, seeing as we made no copyright claim at all, were happy that she copied our post, and merely used it as a teaching moment to show why everything wasn't nearly as clear cut as Ms. Allen believed. Suddenly, just because Ms. Allen cried "abuse," despite no evidence of any actual abuse, her supporters started assuming that it must be me who was doing the "abusing."
The whole thing has become rather insane, frankly. But I'm not afraid to respond to folks who raise reasonable questions. I don't shut down and hide when someone brings up points that weren't addressed. Ms. Allen kicked this whole thing off and claimed she was just trying to start a discussion. And we responded, by pointing out the inconsistencies in her position. That wasn't an attack. Plenty of people who first jump into a debate on copyright or file sharing don't fully understand the issues -- and the best way to help them get past those initial misconceptions is to ask important questions, and highlight how the issue is a lot more complex than it may appear at first blush. The fact that Ms. Allen was distributing others' copyrighted music on her own, and used that to help build her popularity -- while now claiming that the same activity by others was destroying the opportunity for new artists made little sense -- and the double standard seemed worth calling out. And, despite her deleting her blog, some actually saved many of the comments on her blog. And, again, they don't show "abuse," but thoughtful, reasoned argument along these lines -- none of which Ms. Allen has responded to as of yet. That post, by the way, also highlights numerous factual errors in Ms. Allen's earlier responses.
So, yes, I'm going to post this video, because I think it's great (and catchy) and because I think it does further the conversation, just not in the direction that Ms. Allen intended. It's from a fan of Ms. Allen's work, and is endearing, not attacking. It's entertaining. It's free... and it got me to go and buy Dan Bull's first album, even though he's offering it up for free, too. Ms. Allen wanted a conversation and she claims she wanted more new music. Well, here's both in one shot:
This isn't "abuse." This isn't an "attack." This is, as all of my posts on this subject have been, an attempt to get Ms. Allen to actually think through these issues and answer some questions which it appears she has not considered. If reaching her by song is the way to do it, then that would be wonderful. However, I fear that she's decided to declare victory and walk away, rather than address any of the points raised.
While lots of people have picked up on various aspects of the song, the two points that I think are most relevant are pointing out that downloads don't equal sales, so stopping downloads (or kicking people off the internet) doesn't make people pay up. This is a point we've been raising for ages, and no one ever responds. The industry seems to think that magically people will start paying. And yet, there's no evidence of that whatsoever.
The second point is sarcastic, but is really a good one. Dan Bull jokes that using the same logic of people who think that stopping piracy (as if that's possible) will make people buy more music, perhaps we should ban CDs, because (according to this logic) "then people would have to pay to see bands for real." There's a huge disconnect here. The people who think that blocking activity online (and, remember, study after study after study has shown that "pirates" end up spending a lot more on music) will drive more of some other buying activity have no sense of economic history.
Taking away what fans want to do doesn't drive them to paying you more money. It drives them towards others who actually treat fans right. Like Dan Bull.
It's no secret that we've got some serious problems with the way the old school scientific journals work -- basically locking up scientific research rather than really living up to their mandate to spread scientific knowledge. Stephen alerts us to a separate issue with traditional journal publications: how they handle the followup discussion. There's a great blog post at Scienceblogs, that compares two separate journal articles where readers felt that the results were falsified in some way (despite being peer reviewed). In one, the scientist had to go to hell and back just to get the editors publish a comment questioning the original article. In the second, even though the article was published in a journal, an outside blog post and its comments became an impromptu forum to question the data in the article -- with many scientists conducting the same experiment themselves and posting the results (including photos) in real-time.
The second one is obviously a lot more of the way research should work these days, though it shouldn't all be hidden in a separate site's comments. If journals are serious about advancing knowledge, rather than locking it up, why not give up on the obviously faulty simple peer review process, and open up the content so that knowledgeable people can input their own thoughts in comments directly on the article in question? Isn't that what knowledge exchange is supposed to be about?
A few months back, I wrote about how important the conversation here on Techdirt is for the overall site. The blog posts here (and the discussion starters in the Insight Community) are conversation starters. They're to get a topic and a point of view out there, and kick off a further discussion that we can all learn from. This still upsets plenty of people who want to pigeonhole us into being "journalists" who need to act in a certain way, and it's interesting to note that the pigeonholing seems to go the other direction as well: many old school journalists hate the idea of being a part of the conversation. They see things like "comments" as something to avoid or to wade into only at your own risk. Many refuse to read or respond to comments.
But that's a huge problem, considering the business those news organizations are actually in: bringing together a community whose attention they can then sell in some manner. If the folks who bring the community in then neglect that community, that community is going to go elsewhere. The disdain many journalists seem to have towards their community shows through.
However, I've had trouble getting across to some just how much value conversation really adds. Yet, Fred Wilson just pointed me to a fascinating post about an experimental schooling method, whereby students who were doing well in certain classes no longer needed to attend the class. This may sound counterintuitive, but what happened was that a group of students simply taught each other the curriculum, and then spent more time learning other subjects as well. And, in teaching each other, they discovered that they learned much more themselves:
Now our independent study group was a remarkable group of non-conformists, whose marks -- on tests we didn't attend classes for or study for -- were so high that some wondered aloud if we were somehow cheating. My grades had climbed into the low 90% range, and this included English where such marks were rare -- especially for someone whose grades had soared almost 30 points in a few months of 'independent' study. The fact is that my peers had done what no English teacher had been able to do -- inspire me to read and write voraciously, and show me how my writing could be improved. My writing, at best marginal six months earlier, was being published in the school literary journal. On one occasion, a poem of mine I read aloud in class (one of the few occasions I actually attended a class that year) produced a spontaneous ovation from my classmates.
The Grade 12 final examinations in those days were set and marked by a province-wide board, so universities could judge who the best students were without having to consider differences between schools. Our independent study group, a handful of students from just one high school, won most of the province-wide scholarships that year. I received the award for the highest combined score in English and Mathematics in the province -- an almost unheard-of 94%.
While I didn't go through a program like that, some of my own experiences have been similar. In college, I was four semesters deep in statistics class before I took a job tutoring stats, and then eventually teaching an intro college class in statistics, and it wasn't until I tutored others and (finally) taught that class that I really understood many of the concepts that I'd supposedly "learned" in class. In class, I did quite well, but it was because I'd learned how to get by and solve problems. In actually teaching others, I was forced to really understand the subject so that I could actually answer the questions that came up.
The same is true of posts here. I had learned a lot about the economics of information and innovation in college, and then again working in Silicon Valley. However, the more I wrote about these subjects on Techdirt, the more people challenged different ideas, and got me thinking more deeply about them and how to not just defend my positions (or to change them, if I was convinced otherwise), but to really understand the subjects much more deeply. I've purchased more textbooks (and read them cover to cover) running this blog than I ever did in college or grad school -- and (this is the amazing part) even started recognizing where some of them have made mistakes.
These discussions are like another graduate degree for me, because I constantly have to think, rethink, defend and truly understand the arguments I'm making. It's hard to overstate how incredibly valuable that's been. The fact that many journalists refuse to engage in that sort of conversation actually shows through in their work: they don't want to bother. They like to position themselves as experts, but many don't really understand what they're talking about. Engaging in the conversation may be a lot of work -- and, at times, it can be frustrating or seemingly pointless. But, the massive amount of value I've received from those discussions -- just like the student in the story above -- is almost impossible to quantify. People talk about the importance of ongoing education. That's exactly what these conversations are for me.
The Wall Street Journal has an article exploring an interesting lawsuit in New Jersey, concerning privacy of employee comments in a private forum outside of work. In this case, some workers at a restaurant had set up a private MySpace group where they discussed work, including patrons of the restaurant and their supervisors. It's the typical sort of thing that people always joke about -- in the past, to each other in person, and these days online. The whole thing was private, and a way of joking around/letting off steam -- but, of course, one employee showed a supervisor, who initially laughed it off. However, the news spread up the chain of command, and the employee, who initially revealed the group, was forced to hand over her login to the group, which was used by the restaurant's managers, who then fired the creators of the group. The fired employees claim that the info was accessed illegally, violating wiretapping laws. That may be a difficult claim to substantiate, and could raise questions about what constitutes illegal access to such info (after all, the only reason supervisors found out in the first place was because one employee voluntarily shared the info). Still, it does seem like quite an overreaction to fire the workers because of this group.